It might have been born in the 18th century, but Osborne Clarke is embracing the digital age, with technology and energy among its sector specialisms.
Look closely at the Osborne Clarke logo and you'll notice a cat – a pretty slinky-looking predator at that. The feline in question is a fitting symbol for OC, which has been prowling the market and staking out new territory as it ascends the ladder of law firm success. The Bristol native turned London-headquartered firm set up shop in Brussels, Paris, New York and San Francisco in 2013, then opened its doors for business in Amsterdam in 2014. These new hubs join a further nine in Europe, plus another Stateside branch (Palo Alto) and the firm's third UK office, Reading. As OC's network has blossomed, so too has its revenue – in 2013/14, turnover sprang up by more than 25% to reach £142m. It'll always remain a Bristolian beast at heart, but the OC of today is a confident cosmopolitan cat with cash to spare: in summer 2014 all UK staff members received a 2% bonus.
It's not just OC's quadrupedal mascot that sets it apart from the rest of the pack. The firm favours a sector-based approach covering eight main industries: digital business; energy and utilities; real estate and infrastructure; financial services; life sciences and healthcare; retail, transport and automotive; and recruitment. Back in 2001, OC set up its Palo Alto branch to help US tech companies branch into Europe, and while Thames Valley might not hold the same superficial glamour of Silicon Valley, the Reading office plays a similar role in the UK, catering for major players along the tech-heavy M4 corridor. Many of our trainee sources told us they were drawn in by the firm's modish, “future-focused” clientele – Google, Netflix, Facebook, to name a few – while its high-flying customers on the IP side piqued the interest of others (here we're talking EE, Virgin Media, Marks & Spencer and Selfridges). Over on the corporate end – which commands premier Chambers UK rankings both in and out of London – lawyers recently acted on the AIM flotation of cake purveyors Patisserie Valerie and assisted Carphone Warehouse with its £3.6bn merger with Dixons; meanwhile across the pond the firm's bagged a spot on Apple's $3bn (£1.8bn) acquisition of Dr Dre's headphone and music company, Beats.
With clients like these, a dated website would really let the side down. Never fear, for OC's online offering is blooming with colourful, stylish graphics, plus the suggestion that it's “the world's least stuffy law firm.” Are there beanbags and retro trainers in abundance here? Well no, but trainees did tell us the open-plan design of all three UK locations means there's “not much visible hierarchy. The partners sit among everyone else, so there's no problem going up to talk to anyone.” More on the OC culture later.
M4 Corridor of Power
At the time of our calls, there were 15 trainees in Bristol, 14 in London and three in Reading. Across all three, seats in corporate, litigation and real estate (or tax in Bristol) are compulsory. That said, “there's a level of flexibility,” we're told. “Sometimes people do banking instead of corporate, depending on the business need at the time, and within corporate there's lots of variation – M&A, financial services, public companies.” Several client secondments are also available. Overall our sources were happy with the way seat allocation is handled, telling us that “HR is very willing to listen and take your preferences into account.” Over in London “we chat openly among ourselves about where we want to go so we can foresee any problems.” Meanwhile those in Reading mentioned that with only two non-compulsory of options to choose from, “you pretty much know at the outset what's going to happen. It's prescriptive, but at least there are no arguments over who goes where.”
Before plunging into a seat, trainees gather in Bristol or London for a day of introductory training. “It's useful to get a heads-up about what certain seats might involve and to meet trainees from the other offices.”
OC's corporate department takes in work from all the firm's main sectors. On the tech side it recently advised Carphone Warehouse on its £500m acquisition and reverse takeover of American electronics company Best Buy, while lawyers on the energy end advised Foresight Group on its £44m venture capital funding and acquisition of the Wymeswold Solar project, the largest solar farm in the UK. An interviewee who'd spent much of their seat assisting with private equity work described their time with the team thusly: “I prepared a lot of ancillary documents for various private equity deals. I also produced due diligence reports, reviewed statutory books and made sure all the documents – about 200 of them! – were organised for signing in the run up to completion. People fly in from abroad for these signing days, so that's very important. Post-completion, I bibled these documents and drafted one stating which parties still had obligations to be fulfilled before a certain date.” M&A work also sees trainees get a grip on ancillaries. “I drafted a lot of board minutes and shareholder resolutions, plus transfers of interest, deeds of variation, and short sales and purchase agreements.” Other trainee fare generally includes assisting with filings at Companies House and attending client meetings.
Interviewees spoke enthusiastically of their time in the banking group, which earns top Chambers UK rankings in the South West and Thames Valley. “I was involved in a number of credit facility refinancings of large to medium companies,” said one, explaining that “that meant managing the conditions precedent process – ie, keeping track of lots of different documents and making sure they were all in place.” Another told us: “The banking partners have been very good and really pushed me with complex documents. For instance, I recently drafted a facility agreement, which is the main document in a banking deal. This one was about 30 pages long. They're also happy for me to try a first draft of all the securities documents.”
The firm's real estate group is split between residential and commercial work. The former includes projects for major house builders like Barratt, Linden Homes and Persimmon, while on the commercial end OC looks after property portfolios for investment and pension funds. The firm also works with major retail clients like Marks & Spencer and gets involved with regeneration projects and student accommodation developments such as Campus Living Village's £37m acquisition of three student blocks in Bournemouth. For trainees, tasks include drafting leases, underleases and contracts, and most of our sources reported running small discrete matters independently too, “like an underlease for a charity. I checked my work with the partner every day, but she gave me the first go at everything.” On big residential projects, trainees “draft transfer forms and take notes in meetings” when they're not going on site visits and tackling admin, “like helping out with stamp duty and making sure returns are paid within the deadline.” According to one cheery interviewee, “everyone talks about stamp duty as this horrendous task, but it really isn't that bad. During the property seat I also got to colour in plans, which was excellent – I saved it until the end of the day, when I was tired.”
All three UK offices have a commercial litigation department, and trainees in Bristol and London can also sample property and IP litigation to fulfil their contentious requirement. Between its departments, OC deals with all manner of disputes, including international arbitrations. The Bristol team recently acted for several Icelandic financial institutions in a claim against French banking group Société Générale, and represented npower in a multimillion-pound dispute with National Grid regarding metering services. OC also acted for the executor of Jimmy Savile's estate, NatWest, in a dispute over a compensation scheme for the TV presenter's sexual abuse victims. Other hefty litigation clients of late include Dell, HP, Yahoo! and EE.
Typical trainee tasks in litigation include carrying out research, going to court to drop off documents, helping draft opinions and letters to the other side, preparing bundles and managing transcripts. That's not all; a Reading trainee reported “running a couple of small matters like debt claims myself, acting as the first point of contact,” while a London source told of getting “involved in a big case going to the High Court – I went to court every day, met the clients and went to chambers to meet the barristers.” Meanwhile a source who'd spent time in property litigation said much of their time was taken up with “adjudication, which is a fast-paced dispute resolution system specific to the construction industry. I did a lot of liaising and made sure deadlines were met for documents.”
Across all the offices, interviewees told us they felt “very well supported” by supervisors and other solicitors. “There's a good balance. You're never mollycoddled; you're challenged and have to think for yourself, but equally you know there are people to turn to for help. Working open-plan means it's very easy to ask questions at an appropriate moment.” Trainees also praised this set-up for “allowing you to observe how others operate, which is a great learning process.” When it comes to responsibility levels, one source summed up the general feeling with the following: “Obviously it's not all glamorous and great, but if you show you're capable, they'll give you as much as you can handle.” One trainee particularly appreciated being “named on a team sheet. It's good to know you're not just there to fill in forms and make tea all the time.”
It's not uncommon for trainees to find themselves “bundling for an injunction in the middle of the night” at some point, though we did hear “the longest hours tend to be in transactional seats,” where “the up and down can keep you here until 2am sometimes.” Fortunately average schedules ranged between 9am and 7pm for our interviewees. “If you've finished your work, there's no problem leaving at 5.30pm. And if you do end up staying late, at least senior lawyers make the effort to stay with you; it's not as if a whole load of work is dumped on you alone. Teamwork is part of the ethos here.”
On the subject of firm ethos, we quizzed insiders about the firm's aforementioned self-proclaimed lack of stuffiness. “They really are as friendly as they say they are!” exclaimed one, a sentiment echoed by – honestly – all our interviewees. “I was amazed by how approachable and enthusiastic people were about the work and OC itself,” said one. “It first struck me during the vac scheme when a senior partner walked up to me and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. At first I was taken aback and confused as to whether I should say yes, because I was thinking 'shouldn't I be making him a cup of tea?'” Of course, that's not to say there's lively chatter and non-hierarchical horseplay all day long. “It's not a party atmosphere – people work very diligently; it's just that it's easy to get to know people alongside that. The partners here are the kind of people who strike up conversation with you in the lift.”
Trainees firm-wide have a budget for social dos, though Thames Valley folk mentioned “Bristol and London have bigger social scenes simply because there's more of them.” A Bristolian rattled off some recent trainee events: “Ice-skating, Laser Quest, cider-tasting, and a cocktail and magic masterclass for vac schemers.” In London, “we do things every three months like drinks or a meal.” The big firm-wide event of the year “is a massive fancy dress do – everyone goes all out.” The theme for 2014 was 'What I Want To Be When I Grow Up'. In case you were wondering, “nobody was dressed as a lawyer.” We don't believe it.
When it comes to retention, our interviewees were pretty confident about their chances of staying on. In the end five out of Bristol's seven qualifiers got jobs, Reading's single qualifier was kept on, and London kept six of seven.
Trainees felt the future of the firm looks bright. “It's an exciting time – OC is growing and getting more and more cutting-edge work.”
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2015
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2015
Osborne Clarke attends law fairs at 14 or so universities each year. The list changes from year to year, but the firm does have a core set that it always attends: Bristol, Exeter, Reading, Southampton, King’s, UCL and Oxford all feature.
Landing a training contract at OC is competitive business. As training principal Nick Johnson tells us, the firm only interviews around 10% of the 1,000-plus candidates who apply each year. Trainees come from a mix of top and mid-range universities, and Johnson informs us that “those invited to interview have generally scored a First or a 2:1 throughout their studies. They will also have given really strong answers to our competency-based questions.”
The firm is particularly welcoming to those with second careers. Among the current trainee intake are those with backgrounds in fields as varied as teaching, telecoms and the armed forces; there's even a former water polo Olympian. Confidence is their unifying factor, Johnson tells us. “You need to be intelligent but also have the ability to hold your own in a room full of people you don’t know, including partners.” As our trainee sources added: “You also need to be very sociable, outgoing and willing to get stuck into everything.”
Applications and assessments
OC's vacation scheme is by far the best route into the firm, accounting for around 70% of each trainee intake.
Applications for spots begin with an online form and verbal reasoning test. Strong written communication skills and attention to detail are essential to pass these.
Those who impress are invited to an assessment centre that involves a written exercise and a formal interview. “It’s really about showing an interest in what the firm does and having done research beforehand,” Nick Johnson says. “We can tell which candidates are interested in the firm as their answers are tailored to our specialities and what we’re doing in the market.” The firm makes its vac scheme offers after this.
Those who want to take their chances at applying directly for training contract complete the same online form as vac scheme applicants. If they pass the initial screening, they go on to participate in an assessment centre like the one detailed above, followed by a partner interview.
OC's Bristol, London and Reading offices each run a two-week vacation scheme. These run concurrently. Bristol and London each host around ten students at a time, while Reading hosts four or five. Vac schemers split their time between two different departments and are assigned a trainee buddy each. Past attendees told us they'd gotten to grips with hands-on tasks and “actually assumed the role of a trainee solicitor.” The scheme tends to go easy on the social side, an approach our trainee sources appreciated at the time. “It’s nice to be wined and dined, but that’s not what it’s actually like as a trainee. Also, too many evening events can wear you out.”
According to trainees, “the vac schemers who impress the most are the ones who make an effort to speak to people and ask as many questions as they want.” On the final day of their placement, vac schemers interview for a training contract with two partners.
“Slough's a big place, and when I'm finished with Slough there's Reading. Aldershot, Bracknell...you know...I've got Didcot, Yately.”
The winds of innovation blow strongly through the Thames Valley. As the fertile seat of the UK's knowledge-based industries – that is, IT and life sciences – it's perhaps the UK's answer to the Silicon Valley, albeit with less sunshine and more self-deprecation. Forget London; the towns that flank the M4 are home to a whole load of high-tech companies: Microsoft has its UK headquarters in Reading, as does IT giant Oracle, whose CEO Larry Ellison is the fifth-richest bloke on the planet. Global networking company Cisco (not to be confused with Sisqo, the man who presented the world with the inimitable 'Thong Song') is also a Reading resident. Vodafone's main office is over in the Berkshire market town of Newbury, while O2 is based in Slough (along with Mars – indeed, the first ever Mars Bar was developed in town). Finally, Hutchinson 3G – operator of the 3 network – has its base in Maidenhead.
Osborne Clarke is in the thick of digital business in the Thames Valley. The firm recently advised Swindon-based small-cell telecoms company Ubiquisys on its $310m sale to Cisco, a deal that involved both UK and US law. It also assisted Xerox with its acquisition of CVG, a software company that specialises in cloud-based technology. (The latter seems especially topical following the 2014 theft by hackers of nude pictures various celebrities had stored on their iCloud accounts. As technology develops so quickly, how will the law surrounding cybersecurity keep up?) OC's also helped Bracknell-based Redwood Technologies Group, a major supplier of network services to the telecoms industry and government, on various contractual, property, payment systems and distribution issues in recent years.
Another company located in Bracknell is Daler-Rowney, the well-known maker of artists' materials. OC regularly helps the enterprise out with its IP portfolio and trademark disputes. Going back to the tech sector, the firm recently represented Bullitt Mobile – a company that makes 'rugged' mobile phones and audio equipment in partnership with Caterpillar, JCB and Ted Baker – in its damages claim against Sonim Technologies for groundless threats of design infringement.
A bit about the city
Nestled between the borders of Somerset and Gloucester, Bristol is commonly labelled the 'gateway to the South West', thanks largely to one Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the esteemed, cigar-chomping Victorian engineer behind the Great Western Railway, which links Bristol to London Paddington. He was also responsible for one of the city's most iconic landmarks: the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
These achievements have had a lasting impact on Bristol's position and status in the country: after Brunel kick-started the city's connectivity, Bristol went on to become the success story it is today.
'Bristle' used to be a bustling seaport that thrived on maritime commerce. These days, the Port of Bristol no longer plays a vital role in keeping the city afloat. Instead, its prosperity is far more dependent on the aerospace, technology, media, financial services and tourism industries. Major companies that operate in and around Bristol include multinational aerospace and defence outfit BAE Systems and American IT giant Hewlett-Packard, which has national research laboratories based in town.
The forecast for Bristol over the next few years is very promising. Property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle predicted in 2013 that Bristol would be a key force in the recovery of the economy, outperforming every city except London in terms of the number of high-value jobs created. The 'City Deal' – a deal agreed in 2012 between the Mayor of Bristol and the government which empowers the city to draw in a sizeable amount of private investment – will no doubt help to boost Bristol's strength in coming years. According to early estimations, this investment should hit £1.5bn and forge around 40,000 jobs over the next 30 years.
All in all, the city's horizon looks pretty rosy.
The city's legal market
Bristol has long been recognised as an important hub for legal services. There used to be a time when Bristol was solely the turf of strong native firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke. Slowly over the past few years, however, bigger national and international firms have begun to see the allure of Bristol. CMS was the first to cotton on to the city's potential, launching an office all the way back in 1990, but since 2010 Irwin Mitchell, RPC and Simmons & Simmons have all set up shop too.
That London firms are drawn to Bristol underscores the legal community's confidence in the city as a viable hub for business. The knowledge-based economy in Bristol tallies with many of the aforementioned firms' existing and target clients, and a Bristol base means firms can drive down costs – a key factor in Simmons & Simmons' decision to open in the city.
The emergence of non-native players hasn't dislodged the performance of the city's home-grown firms, though. Burges Salmon posted a record-high revenue of £73.7m in 2013 (its fourth consecutive year of growth), while Osborne Clarke saw its turnover rise by 25% to £142m in 2014. Fellow Bristolian TLT too has grown substantially over the past few years, posting £57.9m in turnover in 2014.
Where the firms go, the legal education providers go, and Bristol is no exception. The University of Law stormed into the city in 2010 to join long-standing providers BPP and the Bristol Institute of Legal Practice (BILP), and it didn't take long before ULaw brought up the rear, securing deals to educate Osborne Clarke's and DAC Beachcroft's incoming trainees.
Life at a Bristol firm
Bristol firms have a long history of poaching City lawyers tired of excruciatingly cramped, rush-hour tube-journeys followed by 14-hour days in the office. Burges Salmon has embraced this stereotype quite strategically over the years, producing adverts that depict 'sardines' (hapless tube-passengers with their faces squashed against the doors) placed above the bold word 'salmon' (a nod to the free-flowing solicitors merrily leaping upstream to work at BS). Another advert simply depicted ecstatic lawyers in wetsuits, implying that you can have enjoy a desirable beach lifestyle if you decide to practise at the firm.
There's no doubt a refreshing walk down a tree-lined hill is a million times more enticing than a sweaty crush on the Central line, but we should point out that life in Bristol isn't always a nine-to-five paradise. At Osborne Clarke, for example, our research shows trainees – especially those in transactional departments – occasionally encounter the kind of late-night shifts seen at City firms, though the average day is still a reasonable 9am to 7pm. As our trainee sources confirm, the atmosphere at such firms has become increasingly 'corporate' over the years, and many are keen to dispel the myth that life at a Bristol law firm is a piece of cake.
Indeed, the pressure's cranking up as the stakes get higher, and the city's legal market has become more competitive as a result. In 2011 Temple Quarter, near Temple Meads station, was declared Bristol's upcoming enterprise zone, and as many firms – including Simmons & Simmons, Osborne Clarke and Burges Salmon – have since relocated to the area. As such, many trainees in Bristol today have quite a different experience than what they would have ten or so years ago – one with more of a 'City' flavour. As one Burges Salmon trainee told us: “Temple Quarter is a much more corporate area than where we were before, which does change the overall atmosphere at the firm.”
With this change has come a bigger range of local, national and international work for the aforementioned firms, plus more opportunities for client contact for their young lawyers, so we get the impression that Bristolian trainees feel they are very much coming out on top.
Things to do in Bristol
Bristol has lots to offer on the social side. Here's a quick run-down of the main areas in the city, as well as a few perks Bristolians are privy to.
Bristol City Centre: Home to the shopping quarter and perfect for anyone who likes to scour for a good bargain. If you appreciate the creativity that can emerge from a spray can, know it's also the place where Bristol's permanent street art project, See No Evil, is found.
Clifton: The ideal solicitor's retreat, chock full of beautiful Georgian architecture. Many a bar and restaurant can be found in Clifton Triangle, while Clifton Village is where you'll come across Bristol's iconic suspension bridge.
Gloucester Road: North Bristol and a popular suburb of the city. Also a great place to get an authentic Jamaican curry.
The Harbourside: Bristol's leisure space, which played a very important role in the city's history. It's popular with trainees in the summer, who flock here to catch some rays and take a break. It's also the place where you can hop on a boat tour and find many of Bristol's attractions, including At-Bristol (a science centre), Bristol Aquarium, Brunel's SS Great Britain and the Spike Island art space.
Old City: It's in the name, and it's all rather picturesque. Here you can walk along the Christmas Steps: an ancient, meandering street with an array of old novelty shops to contrast the shiny ones in the city centre.
Old Market: This once formed part of a key road into London, but it's now a hotspot for Bristol's gay community.
South Bristol: A farmer's market will keep those with a preference for local produce happy, while avid theatregoers will appreciate the Tobacco Factory, a locale for many touring productions.
Stokes Croft: Bristol's cultural quarter – perfect for those who appreciate the finer things of life. Come here to imagine your life as a bohemian artist, which isn't hard to do, as the area is heavily populated with studios and exhibitions. Fans of Banksy are in for a treat: here resides some of the artist's most famous work.
The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta: Europe's largest hot air balloon event, held each summer in the grounds of Ashton Court. We couldn't write a feature on Bristol without mentioning this.
Museums: There's the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, as well as M Shed.
Theatre: The Bristol Hippodrome is the largest theatre, while The Theatre Royal is a grade I-listed building and one of the oldest in the country. The Bristol Old Vic (an offshoot of London's Old Vic touring company) keeps the quality high.
Sport: You've got two football league clubs – Bristol City and Bristol Rovers – to get rowdy about, as well as the Bristol Rugby union club if that's more your thing. Those with the stamina could also enlist themselves to run Bristol's annual half marathon.
Music: Famous bands like Massive Attack and Portishead forged their careers in Bristol, and there are plenty of live venues to catch your favourite acts, including Colston Hall, Bristol Academy and The Exchange.
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